July 20, 1969. The hoop that my 2-year-old daughter was clutching in her fist suddenly began to move. Her sister screamed, “It’s a snake!” I rushed over to grab it before it bit Elissa, relieved to see it was just a small, nonvenomous king snake.
We had a good laugh and reluctantly continued our packing as no one wanted to leave the Tassajara Zen Center. Now it was late in the afternoon and we were leaving after a three-day stay in which we had bathed in their hot springs, eaten their home-grown food and had been awoken at 3am each morning by the monk’s bell as he passed through the grounds, announcing early-morning meditation.
We had been protected from news of the world. There were no newspapers, and the internet didn’t yet exist. The car radio couldn’t find a signal in this canyon surrounded by 2,000-foot walls.
Dinner was over and it was time to go. We were wearing shorts but left some jackets in the car as night was coming and we would soon be back in our foggy coastal home in Pacific Grove.
I maneuvered the car around the curves on the narrow dirt road out of Tassajara, fortunately not meeting any cars coming down the mountain. An hour later we were out of the forest, and back onto pavement in Carmel Valley. There were only a few vehicles on the road, the sky was clear and the full moon so bright that I briefly considered turning off the headlights and driving by moonlight only.
My wife, Lois, and I were slowly coming out of our dreamy retreat. It would be time to return to the reality of normal routines. What about the news? Had anything happened while we were in media-deprived Tassajara?
The car radio worked again, and we quickly knew that something special had happened. I don’t remember the words, but the newscaster’s voices was different, with an excitement and awe that I had never heard before. And then there was a man speaking slowly through a background hum, like a bad long-distance call, his words punctuated by occasional beeps and squeaks.
Then, suddenly, I knew. The astronauts. They were on the moon. That orb, shining down on us on this empty road, more brilliantly than it ever will again, had humans on it who were talking to us.
I parked on the shoulder and we all got out of the car. We were five people, and five moon-shadows, all looking at the moon. We didn’t say anything. The only sounds were the static-filled voices from the car radio.
Last week, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon voyage, highlighted by recirculating the videos and photos of that unimaginable event. While many of those images are iconic, the one that endures in my mind is of those few minutes, standing on the side of Carmel Valley Road, five of us with our accompanying moon shadows, realizing that Homo sapiens had left the Earth and landed somewhere far away.